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The job may sound grueling on paper, but not to the growing ranks of the more than 98,000 stay-at-home fathers in the United States — and not to Steve Boelter, Danny Echt, Robert Hilton and John Kerman, at least not most of the time.
While their individual family dynamics, professional circumstances and points-of-view vary greatly, these South Coast stay-at-home fathers agree on one thing: putting in the time at home to create a close bond with their children is pretty darn terrific.
Robert Hilton: THE TRIPLE THREAT
“I never thought I’d ever be a father and here I am and it is just wonderful,” said Robert Hilton. A touching statement from any 58-year-old, to be sure, but even more tender considering that Hilton is the stay-at-home father to 2-year-old triplets, Heather, Elizabeth and Spencer.
“He was a confirmed bachelor. He married late in life, and then I really wanted a family, one child or maybe two,” laughed his wife, Marie Hathaway Hilton, who works for Medtronics in Goleta. “We did it and it was really a shock. It’s been a real shift in how you perceive yourself and what it means to be a man … but I think what comes through is that the children are very much loved and they know they are loved. … For someone who is the last person on earth you could imagine being a dad, he has just done a great job and you can see that with the kids.”
Following the sage advice of other parents of multiples, Hilton has the toddlers on a pretty strict schedule, “otherwise it would just be chaos.”
Early on the retired marine mechanic had help from three generations of family friends, Sheri Morris, Nicole Dominguez and their Nana. “They saved my hide,” Hilton said. But after about seven months, he was on his own with three babies while Marie was at work.
“I remember one night when I was feeding one of them … I was terrified. I hadn’t really gotten used to it yet and I was a nervous wreck. It was 4 in the morning and whichever one it was I was feeding reached up and grabbed my finger and smiled. And that just did it for me. That just took everything away,” Hilton said.
“When you start hearing your children laugh and they call you dada, it’s just astounding. So it keeps me going that they’re so happy.”
Steve Boelter: THE HAREM LEADER
Known to other Kellogg School volunteers as “Steve and his harem,” Steve Boelter stays at home with Michael, 8, and Mason, 4.
“I’m pretty much it (as far as male volunteers in class),” Boelter said. “It’s me and the women.”
Once the owner of now-defunct Goleta restaurants Jasper’s and Boelter’s Grill, Boelter became a full-time father when Mason was a year old. He was unemployed and his wife Lisa’s business, Anna’s Bakery, was doing well.
“It just seemed to make sense that rather than pay for day care, I would stay home with the guys,” he said. As far as the adjustment to full-time fatherhood, Boelter said he may have had it easier than most. “I was pretty lucky with the whole deal as far as owning the restaurant. I knew how to cook, and I knew how to do the business thing and the shopping … It would be a lot harder if you were working behind a computer … it definitely takes a certain personality.”
As for his friends, “for the most part, everybody thinks it’s great,” Boelter said. Although his staying at home “really bugs” his own mother, his mother-in-law is “much more understanding.”
Boelter plans to get back into the paid workforce but for now he said, “it’s really fun just to be in every part of their lives. They’re not little for a whole lot of time.”
Having time to coach Little League and soccer and “take advantage of the time and get in the best shape of your life” is a real treat for the competitive bike racer.
He said he really values things like recently being able to attend both performances of Michael’s second-grade play.
“I notice a big difference … with my older kid, the relationship that we both had when I was working. It was not very close, whereas now it’s very close,” Boelter said.
While he never imagined that stay-at-home fatherhood would be the path his life would take, Boelter is happy with the way things worked out.
“My life is great right now.”
John Kerman: THE CONTRARIAN
“If I had it to do it all over again I’d do it,” said John Kerman, who stays at home with 10-year-old Jimmy and 8-year-old Catie, who both attend Washington School. While Kerman and his wife, Evalyn, business manager for the Montecito Water District, were committed to having one parent stay at home with the children, they didn’t decide it would be John until he was laid off from his banking job while Evalyn was pregnant with Jimmy.
“We said, let’s try this for a little while,” Kerman said. “I think it started out being more of a temporary thing, but then it started dawning on us that this was working pretty well and we decided to stay with it because, in part, we developed this sort of a contrarian lifestyle.”
Both spouses and their children seem to be quite happy with their roles. When asked if they ever envy each other, Kerman said, “yeah, there were some moments like that. But recently I think we’re far enough along with this … everyone is happy to be where they are.”
Evalyn said the people who most often express envy are working dads, who wish they could stay home with their kids.
“It’s fantastic that she has given me this opportunity to do this,” Kerman said. “I tell her just how thankful I am that she’s willing to work and support our family and give me this opportunity, and to tolerate me as the stay-at-home parent.
“I had no idea how hard the job is. I have so much respect for what women have done for all these years. It’s a tremendously challenging thing to do and … we fumble along and do the best we can, but, boy, I tell you, I’m thrilled to do it,” he said.
“There can be a competitive aspect to parenting for some moms whereas I just do it like any other home-improvement project: Slap it together and do the best you can and move on.”
Danny Echt: THE NETWORKER
“You can’t compare jobs and kids. I hope that all of this will mean that when my kids are teenagers and later adults in life that we’ll have a good and meaningful relationship. And work can satisfy that, too, from the money and the things that you can provide,” said Danny Echt, who stays at home with 7-year-old Gabby and 5-year-old Hannah while his wife, Dr. Margaret “Meg” Echt, runs a busy OB/GYN practice
“But the time and … the things that you just don’t know are going to come up when you’re available to accept those are great. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of time, so maybe the best part is just not having to put a schedule to it,” said Echt.
The Echts both felt strongly that one parent should stay home with the kids, and it just so happened that Meg had recently finished her residency when she got pregnant.
“It just made financial sense,” said Echt, a former coach and teacher who still gives a few tennis lessons a week when he’s not volunteering at Hope School or working at the Oaks cooperative preschool.
Unlike some stay-at-home fathers who may be uncomfortable with the stay-at-home mother culture, Echt has embraced what he calls the “network of at-home people,” joining playgroups when the girls were little and choosing a cooperative preschool, in part, to meet more parents.
“It is so critical because at the same time that you want no structure (in the summer) you also want to be able to ring somebody and say ‘hey, let’s go meet by the pool or the park,’ and if you know that people are doing the same thing it’s great.”
While he loves his role as stay-at-home dad, Echt said he would also like to give his wife the chance to be at home with the girls.
“The sacrifice that Meg has made — aside from the physical work, which is tough — is missing those moments where you just kind of feel really lucky to be with your kids. I would love to be able to give her that opportunity. … The logistics I haven’t figured out, but I’d love that.”
Originally published in South Coast Beacon on June 16, 2005.